Berlin Phil’s traditional programming of Beethoven and Prokofiev features Igor Levit’s artistry and mastery

GermanyGermany Beethoven, Prokofiev: Igor Levit (pianist), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Streamed from the Philharmonie Berlin in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall (click here), 6.3.2021. (GT)

Igor Levit (c) Felix Broede

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73

Prokofiev – Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111

Following the two-week festival of ‘The Golden Twenties’ in Berlin, it was back to ‘traditional concert programming’; yet nevertheless of outstanding works interlinked with each other. While these works seem strange bedfellows, they represent the composers’ finest works in these genres.

In Igor Levit’s artistry and mastery at the keyboard there could hardly be a more suitable performer in the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, and most of all for being someone with something new to say in his Beethoven sonata performances with his cycle of those sonatas among the finest available. In the pre-concert interview with Paavo Järvi, Levit said that he had been completely exhausted after playing them all in Salzburg last year. Järvi mentioned that he had conducted the ‘Emperor’ Concerto 34 times and asked Levit if he had ever been influenced by the historical style in playing Beethoven. Levit said that he ‘doesn’t care about limits of borders in playing music. I am absolutely influenced by historical performance … but rather than singing in the piano, the speaking in the piano and the narrative is more important to me, you know just two notes can give the most ecstatic sensation!’. In commenting on the lockdowns and his livestreaming from his home, ‘I can’t approach music and the piano if I don’t have the people to play for … It doesn’t matter if it is one person or 256 people in the hall, the people are precious to me – I play for them … my gratitude to the people is great.’

Regardless of the empty seats of the Philharmonie Hall, the prospect of the large online audience will have encouraged the pianist for in the opening Allegro, Levit began quietly, while the orchestra joined him, and sitting hunched over the keyboard, it was noticeable how much he was listening to the musicians around him. At the rostrum, Järvi brought out all the symphonism of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto to life, especially in the second idea, and as Levit began playing, all the intimacy of the music emerged – sounding almost aristocratic in his music-making. There was some exceptional intonation from the oboe of Jonathan Kelly, while the mood became suitably intense, with the strident martial theme, leading to stunning playing from the soloist in his ranging from breathless intensity to almost hardly perceptible chords so quietly was he touching the keyboard.

In the Adagio, the strings were peerless and assisted by fabulous play from Emmanuel Pahud on the flute, here the playing was very forceful accompanying subtlety at the keyboard. It was nice to see the enjoyment from the musicians in their partnership with Levit, as noticeably witnessed through great clarinet playing. As the finale Rondo started there was much engagement in the soloist’s playing as he picked up an idea from the strings, and it was enlightening to see how Järvi marshalled his musicians with the emerging victorious theme. As the momentum developed there was radiantly joyful playing coming from Levit matching the boundless celebratory culmination.

Paavo Järvi

In the interval discussion, Järvi called Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony ‘a quintessential Soviet symphony’ and how ‘the third movement is recognised as being patriotic music like the old black and white newsreels of the period of Komsomol members happily going about their work, and this contrasted with Soviet reality in the forced imagery. In the first movement, the dream-like music contrasts with the banality, some parts don’t hang together, but finally, it is possible to understand this symphony, and of course, Prokofiev always has the capacity to surprise, and there is always a logic to the music.’

The opening Allegro moderato on muted trumpets followed by the tuba seemed like musical parody, then there was a quirky idea on the strings underlined by a strangely bizarre modernism. Beginning with Kelly’s oboe there was a new idea of reason and hope in a folk tune, this sounded rather graceful on the strings, and there was wonderful playing from the clarinet of Wenzel Fuchs, and on the horn of Stefan Dohr. The orchestral piano brought a new theme which on the strings emerged beautifully – here was hope and beauty, with a wonderful passage from the flute of Pahud.

In the Largo, the idiom of great tragedy developed, and a fine solo trumpet call enhanced the pervading darkness, evoking memories of the recent war, an idea similar to the death scene from Romeo and Juliet. There emerged fine solos from Dominik Wollenweber on the cor anglais and the bassoon of Daniele Damiano, contrasting bizarrely with child-like naivete on the celeste and harp before the great tragic theme was reprised. In the finale, Vivace, there was a lively idea on the clarinet, and a sharply rhythmic notion on strings which brought an intensity of momentum when picked up by the horns in the celebratory march united by piccolo, clarinet, trumpet, trombones and tuba. This exciting passage suddenly ended with a reflective folk melody on the oboes, and then the harp, and with an explosion of terror from the brass, Järvi and his musicians ushered in the darkly tragic close.

Gregor Tassie

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